Hovenweep National Park

October 12, 2001

After leaving our very windy campsite on the San Juan River (we had hoped to kayak to some ruins on the river, but the wind made it very undesirable to be on the river) we drove down Highway 163 east from Bluff, Utah. This road parallels the river and traverses an area that has been lived in for centuries.

The rock art that can be found along this road is mainly from the Basketmaker Anasazi period (AD100-800) although there are newer representations as well.

The sites are conveniently named Bluff Sites 1-6. Site #1 has both Navajo historic art and Pueblo Anasazi pre-historic art. The Navajo art includes several horses and deer. One of the horses is very elaborately decorated with a brand, a saddle blanket and a bridle. The older art consists of spirals and abstract designs.

Site #2 was created in the 1900ís by the same Navajo as in Site #1 (Randolph Benally). This art consists of rows of horses, some with brands and bridles.

Site #3 was located at the side of the road with no pullout nearby. Briefly stopping, partially in a lane of traffic, left us no opportunity to properly search for these pre-historic Anasazi and historic Ute petroglyphs. This was disappointing since we havenít yet seen any Ute rock art.

Site #4 included fine examples of the San Juan Anthropomorphic Style for which the area is known. There is a large anthropomorph with a trapezoidal body probably representing a shaman or supernatural being. There are also smaller anthropomorphs, some with atlatls (these are ancient spear-throwing devices, pre-dating the bow and arrow). This site dates from AD700-900.

Site #5 consists of some very nice Basketmaker panels located on a wall that is now inaccessible. This has undoubtedly saved them from the graffiti and damage that plaques other, more accessible sites. Elements include snakes, anthropomorphs, and the unique Basketmaker lobed circle motif.

Site #6 consists of some faint glyphs on an exposed wall. The large panel contains anthropomorphs, zoomorphs, geometric designs and lobed circles. Across the San Juan River canyon, a large ruin in an alcove can be seen that dates from AD450-800. This is a very large and well-preserved ruin, but as it is on the Navajo Reservation, we were not allowed to visit it.

These sites were so interesting and amazingly accessible. The six sites were on a stretch of highway less than two miles long.

Continuing on our way, we turned off the main road to the north and soon arrived at Cajon Ruins, an outlier group of Hovenweep National Monument. Hovenweep consists of five pre-historic Puebloan-era villages, each located at the head of a separate canyon, within 16 miles of each other.

The Cajon Ruins consist of a group of stone buildings built during the Pueblo III period (AD1100-1300). Archaeologists estimate that up to 2,500 people may have lived here during that time.

cajon.JPG (393604 bytes)
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The area surrounding the ruins is a desert shrub community with very little rainfall. The inhabitants used a spring at the head of the canyon to irrigate their crops and used unique methods of water and soil conservation.

A combination of drought, overpopulation and over-use of the resources probably caused the inhabitants of the Cajon Group to move on around 1300.

Continuing north, we arrived at the Towers Group of Hovenweep. This is the main group in the Monument and there is a two-mile trail that lead us past all the ruins.

The spectacular 1,000 year old towers still standing at Hovenweep are testimony to the architectural abilities of the Ancestral Puebloans. Some of the towers are 20 feet tall!

hovenweep tower group
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The trail that took us past these ancient towers allowed us time to ponder not only the towers themselves, but also the lives of the people who built them. Many theories have been offered to explain their existence. They may have been observatories; two of the buildings have openings that admit shafts of sunlight in on the solstices and equinoxes. They may have been signaling stations; there is a line-of-sight network between the complexes. They could have been for ceremonies, storage or defense. We may never know.

Whatever their purpose then, they are now a valuable and irreplaceable part of our heritage. They should be viewed with, and treated with respect.


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